With top House Republicans and Senate Democrats set to huddle with President Obama in separate White House meetings Thursday, the devil remained in the still-undetermined details of any stopgap bill that could end the government shutdown and avert a first-ever national default.
Any agreement, it appeared Wednesday night, will depend on meeting House Republican expectations that they would receive IOUs for later negotiations on spending and policy issues. There was also little clarity about how the GOP demands for commitments in future talks would mesh with continuing Democratic refusals to pass anything but a "clean" bill with no strings attached.
Four House Democratic leaders spoke with reporters late Wednesday after the hour-long meeting at the White House: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina, and Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Pelosi called the meeting "very positive" but indicated no change in the Democrats' position that there should be no negotiations until the government shutdown is ended and the threat to the debt limit removed.
Yet, just hours earlier at the Capitol, House GOP conservatives were suddenly sounding optimistic about the prospects for a short-term measure that they said some of them were now willing to consider.
A number of those Republicans in interviews spoke with confidence that the House could soon approve a short-term deal to raise the debt ceiling and force Democrats to the negotiating table.
Details are still being ironed out, House Republicans said, but they are on track to approve a debt-limit extension — lasting between four and six weeks — that would establish a framework for subsequent fiscal negotiations. Some said such a measure could pass as soon as Friday.
"We aren't going to solve the long-term challenges in a week," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. "So if there's a solution to this ... it's a negotiated agreement to have a short-term debt-limit extension that gives the time to be able to solve the long-term challenges."
Pressed for more specifics, Republicans made clear that their main goal is a bill that includes some form of agreements or framework for immediate talks on spending and other issues.
Some members are pushing for spending cuts to equal any increase in the debt ceiling, though such a figure could be difficult to calculate. Others are advocating the inclusion of mini-funding bills that have been passed through the House. A clutch of conservatives, meanwhile, is asking for language that would prioritize Treasury payments on the nation's debts.
"We'd prefer a long-term deal," said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana after he emerged from a closed-door meeting of the conservative Republican Study Committee, which he chairs. "But if we need to do something short-term, we should have the corresponding reforms."
Still, with the debt-ceiling deadline looming next week, and markets warily watching every move in Congress, some GOP lawmakers also are against attaching anything "objectionable" for fear the Senate would reject it.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and his leadership team have been meeting this week with rank-and-file members to build consensus and keep everyone on the same page. One of those members, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about the strategy of the conference, said the short-term extension has emerged as the "clear front-runner" and said he's hoping for a vote by week's end.
One hang-up, he said, is deciding exactly how long the extension should last — and which provisions could be included without starting another ping-pong match with the Senate.
From the Republican view, though, that is the very door that Obama himself has opened, in saying he'd consider the option of a short-term measure to end the nine-day partial government shutdown and stave off default, while he negotiates over fiscal and health policy.
But the unanswered question, of course, is what is meant by such a "framework" and the commitments that it would entail.
"We'll see," said a senior House leadership aide, when asked if even Boehner is on board with such an idea.
"Clearly, Republicans want to avoid default," said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, in a refrain echoed by several members leaving the Republican Study Committee meeting.
Still, many Republicans also continued to dismiss the Treasury Department's projection that the government will reach its borrowing limit on Oct. 17 and immediately face a fiscal doomsday. Several, including Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said their view seemed to be supported in a memo being circulated by Moody's Investors Service that said the United States would be able to continue paying its bills after Treasury's drop-dead date.
Fleming said Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., spoke during the closed-door RSC meeting and made the point that it will take several weeks to get all the parts of the GOP's desired reforms through Ways and Means and other committees.
House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said he hasn't seen any details of such a Republican plan.
But, he said, "The position remains that Republicans don't get to enact their budget and their policy agenda in exchange for opening the government or paying our bills on time — for however long or short a period of time [they might propose]."
The White House had invited all House Republicans to meet with the president Thursday, but Boehner's office responded that just he, his top lieutenants, some committee chairs, and a few others would be attending. That did not anger conservatives interviewed Wednesday night, who said they did not take it as an attempt to keep them out of the mix of negotiations.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would not say if he'd consider a short-term deal. Asked about it at a news conference on the Senate steps, Reid repeated a line used in a Democratic poster: "Open the government, pay our bills, we'll negotiate."
Other Senate Democrats seemed to reject the short-term approach, too. In fact 35 Democrats stood with Reid on the steps as he and others spoke about the effects of the shutdown.
"This short-term stuff just puts us right back in the same position that the American people are so frustrated with," said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. "I don't see where that gets us. I don't see that helping here a whole lot."